Filmmaker and former School of Critical Studies visiting faculty member Travis Wilkerson (Film/Video MFA 01) was recently named in The New Yorker’s list of 62 influential documentaries for his film Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017).
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? investigates a startling discovery Wilkerson found in his family history. In 1946, his great-grandfather murdered Bill Spann, a Black man, in Alabama with impunity. Per The New Yorker:
A film that exemplifies the inseparability of the personal and the political, Wilkerson’s documentary investigates a racist killing perpetrated by one of his own ancestors …. In looking into the crime, Wilkerson uncovers the area’s grim history, its legacy of civil-rights activism, its current-day political pathologies, and their inextricable connection to his family life today.
The filmmaker noted the racially charged murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 as the catalyst that spurred him to create the project. Selected as a Critic’s Pick by The New York Times in 2018, the film is lauded as a “scorching and rigorous essay on memory and accountability.”
Wilkerson shared the following in a statement accompanying the film’s screening at the 2017 New York Film Festival:
I didn’t do this simply to be provocative or masochistic even, but rather because the only thing I believed I might be able to offer the Spann family, and to the community in which he lived, whether intact or destroyed—the sincerest acknowledgment I could that what SE Branch did was wrong, part of a long history of abusive behavior towards those in positions of lesser power than he. In Alabama, in the 1940s, this meant he directed his abuse and violence against black people first and foremost, but also against women of all races. I discovered how deeply interconnected these specific forms of oppression were.
The project was originally presented as a live performance, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film has since racked up several nominations, including Best Film at the 2017 Gijón International Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Denver Film Festival, and Best Film at the Locarno Film Festival. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? won Best Documentary Film at the 2018 Ann Arbor Film Festival.
Read Hyperallergic’s 2017 interview with Wilkerson about the documentary.